Skip to content Skip to navigation

Using e-mail to Communicate with Students

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 


The posting below offers some valuable insights on the opportunities e-mail

presents in teaching and learning. It is from the Teaching Toolbox section

of the American Society of Engineering Education's []

magazine, ASEE Prism - Exploring the Future of Engineering Education

[], February 2001, Vol. 10 No. 6, pp. 34-35. Copyright ?

2001, ASEE, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Delicate Balance Between Leadership and Teamwork

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


---------------- 1,173 words ----------------



Using e-mail to communicate with students can make you a better

teacher - and increase class participation.

By Kerry Hannon


Last spring, when University of Maryland Journalism professor Willie

Schatz kiddingly e-mailed his students that class was canceled the

following day due to his birthday, half of them took it seriously and

didn't show up for class. He meant it as a joke, but, hey, it was the

perfect excuse for students to take a breather on a beautiful

sun-kissed day to toss the frisbee around on the quad or sleep a bit

later. "I never thought for a nanosecond they would take it

seriously,"says Schatz. "I even said that the university president

had signed off on it and had declared it a holiday for the entire


Schatz thought he was being funny and reaching out to them on a

personal level-or maybe he was merely trying to rustle up birthday

cards-but communicating via e-mail can cause its share of

misunderstandings. Schatz learned his lesson, and he didn't penalize

the students who took him at his word. After all, if the professor

was humorously canceling class, then that was his prerogative. The

few who did show up had a great private session.

But while some professors at universities across the country still

refuse to use e-mail as a teaching tool, it's here to stay as a quick

and easy way to communicate with students. Though not a replacement

for the classroom and face-to face contact, it is a reinforcement, a

lifeline, an open door even after office hours are over.

While e-teaching has rapidly become an essential tool for professors

in all disciplines, engineering professors have had to jump-start

their computer prowess faster than others to keep up with their

techno-savvy students. "Computers have taken the place of the slide

rule," says Julie E. Sharp, associate professor of the Practice of

Technical Communication in the chemical engineeringdepartment at

Vanderbilt University.

"Today's students are so agile with a computer that you can post a

handout on the Web, answer questions a shy student might not want to

ask in class, or give bulletins about scheduling changes, among other

things," she says. Moreover, you can remind students about papers

that are due and give them tips to help them succeed. "It's a

just-in-time kind of thing," she says. "It's helping them immediately

when they need it."

Students today keep a hectic pace. Many are involved in

extracurricular activities or jobs that conflict with a professor's

office hours. Encouraging students to e-mail their papers, if they

feel they are running hard against the deadline, is a great option

and may ultimately produce a better result. Those few additional

hours can make all the difference.

Here's another thought to consider: Listening and remembering seem to

be a problem for many students in today's fast-paced world, says

Sharp, who has been a professor for 25 years. "If you send your

students an e-mail either individually or as a group, they can refer

to it. It's a reminder. They don't lose it like they might a class


E-mail does seem to help improve student learning and participation,

according to the professors Prism interviewed. Sharp actually

conducted a two-semester study of 59 students to get their feedback

on how it's working from their perspective. She says her students

concur that it's a great way to turn in work, receive information

about an assignment, and get help. It also increases interaction

between professor and student. And education is all about

communicating, right?


Here are some techniques that Sharp's study indicated are effective:

Install virus protection software and keep it updated. At the

beginning of the course get the preferred e-mail addresses from

students. Announce the course requirements for checking e-mail. Make

your e-mail subject lines as specific as possible--you don't want

them to get confused with the mail from Mom. Check your student

e-mail at least once and preferably twice a day. Also check messages

the evening before a major assignment is due; there could be some

folks out there with dire last-minute questions. Send a mass e-mail

with tips for success no later than one day before a major assignment

is due.

Most students have their own computers or have access to computers at

the engineering schools, so it shouldn't be a problem to get this

line of communication rolling--though you should check early on in

the course to make sure everyone can pick up messages. According to

Sharp's study, students check e-mail more frequently than printed

class materials and want messages with information about their

assignments. Sharp swears by the rule of one e-mail a week, but

answers individual messages every weekday and Sunday night.

Computers can also boost the person-to-person connection that helps

the education process. Of course, students want the option of meeting

with the professor and want to know what the office hours are, just

in case they can amble by for a chat.

But computer communication is definitely a different animal. You'll

be dissed for being long-winded; communicating succinctly seems to be

de rigueur. E-mail messages from professors should be relatively

short, according to Sharp's study of her students. And, whenever

possible, trash the attachments.

If you're still unsure, how's this for a vote of confidence about

using e-mail in your teaching? "Few of my professors communicate by

e-mail," wrote one Vanderbilt engineering student surveyed by Sharp.

" Those that do, I feel, care enough about their students to give

little reminders or words of encouragement that I appreciate greatly.

Come to think if it, it's discouraging to think I have so many

professors that don't have those extra 10-15 minutes a week to have

any sort of extra communication with their class that they themselves


In no way should professors limit themselves to e-mail, or think of

e-mail as a strategy to take them off the hook of physically

teaching. But it is, without question, a great way to build a bond by

reaching out to students and letting them know that you are there to

help. After all, you want them to succeed.

So, if a student has a question at two in the morning, they can ask

it. Hopefully, you'll get to it in the morning before class and deal

with it, quickly and privately. You can also get papers outside of

normal classroom hours and they can meet the deadline. It helps you

to be, in other words, the "guide on the side" rather than always

being the "sage on the stage."

There's more though, of course. You can use e-mail to highlight major

points made in class, to mention things you forgot to bring up in

class, or to give a heads-up about an unexpected absence. (Not like

Schatz's, mind you.)

And, of course, there are some drawbacks. All students must have

computer access, attaching files can often be problematic. For

example, America Online users still can't download most files from

other Internet carriers, so you have to paste them into an e-mail


In the end, remember to make it short and sweet. But keep in touch.

You've got mail.


Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.